Well, I WAS going to settle into the long offseason with some casual discussion of how the UCLA men’s basketball team performed, what to look for this offseason, and what the future outlook is. Maybe we’d talk a bit about gymnastics (hosting a regional this weekend!) or some discussion about baseball or softball (trust me, this is actually coming). Perhaps we’d even take a peak over the walls of the Wasserman Center and discuss a little spring UCLA football.
But no, we don’t get to do that. See, we have to have a discussion about NIL because the larger UCLA community just can’t help themselves.
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There are a lot of different things I want to talk about in this regard, from how NIL has turned into a necessary evil in a bad system, to how colleges refuse to take their hand out of the cookie jar, to even how certain segments of the UCLA media have acted in recent days. These things are all connected, but they all need to be discussed separately to give them enough room to breathe, so let’s do that.
Let’s start with a truly bare-bones history lesson behind NIL. NIL stands for Name, Image, and Likeness, and refers to the ability of players to market themselves and profit off of their person. The basic story goes like this: in 2009, former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, along with around 19 others, sued the NCAA over the usage of former players’ names, images, and likenesses without compensation. The case wound its way through the judicial system before eventually ending up in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where a judge sided with O’Bannon and declared the NCAA was violating antitrust laws by denying players the ability to market their NIL on their own. While this was not a pure death blow to the NCAA business model (in part because the judge set a limit for how much the players could profit), it did signal that open season was underway on the NCAA.
The aftermath of the O’Bannon decision led the way to other assaults on the NCAA. In 2019 California became the first state to create a law allowing student-athletes to profit off of their NIL and forbidding the NCAA from enacting punishment; other states would quickly follow suit. In 2021 the Supreme Court rendered a decision in NCAA V. Alston, a follow-up case to O’Bannon that confirmed the ruling in O’Bannon while stating that the NCAA’s business model in general seemingly violated antitrust laws and was open to further litigation. It also provided one of the rare moments where both sides of the political spectrum could come together and agree on something, as the 9-0 decision featured the legal version of that famous Dewayne Wade-Lebron James alley-oop, with the NCAA being the basket getting destroyed by a dunk. It was in this climate that the NCAA would ultimately decide to adopt a new NIL policy that would allow student-athletes to directly benefit from their names. That’s how we got to this point.
But it’s also not the whole story.
The part of this story that rarely gets mentioned is that the fight over NIL rights fits comfortably within the larger narrative of the power brokers in college athletics doing everything in their power to consolidate as much money as possible. The fact that student-athletes were not able to profit off of their own names for as long as they were is only because the NCAA came together and sold the American public on the idea of creating a purer version of sports through the concept of amateurism. After all, it worked for the Olympics, so why would it not work here? Left unsaid was the fact that the Olympics make boatloads of money for the International Olympic Committee that goes unseen by the actual athletes competing, and the NCAA would be no different. Multi-million dollar television contracts were signed by the various conferences, and administrative pay climbed further and further higher. Coaching pay similarly went through the roof; if you look at the highest-paid state employee per state, it will more often than not be either a college football or basketball coach.
(All of this is not to say that players did not go uncompensated, by the way. The modern NIL collective can trace its origins back to the old Bag Man system that steered prize recruits to certain schools in exchange for money, and that system was put in place as coaches and administrators realized that if they got the best players and won the most games, they could make more money. The best part was they could pass off the cost of acquiring these players to their donors, who were more than happy to foot the bill in pursuit of bragging rights over their rivals. Gold Trans Ams for all!)
The key thing to understand here is that this new era of NIL is not a fix to a broken system. Far from it; even considering some of the more outlandish NIL deals being signed by recruits, they are still relative bargains compared to the millions of dollars still brought in by the schools; the Big Ten is signing a new media deal worth an estimated $70 million per school, and none of that money will be shared with the student-athletes actually playing the games that generate that value. The NCAA has been resistant to making any long-lasting change, instead constantly writing to Congress asking them to step in and fix the mess they’ve created. Anyone imploring you to donate to a NIL collective has to internalize that this new “system” only helps to reinforce the status quo and still takes advantage of student-athletes by not paying them their true worth.
Have you heard of the 42 Society?
I’m going to assume you have not, so let me explain. The 42 Society is an initiative launched by UCLA Athletics aiming to bring in at least 42 donors willing to commit to a pledge of $500,000 dollars (paid over five years) to the Wooden Athletic Fund. We should not be surprised by this - even with the impending move to the Big Ten, the athletic department is always going to do what it can to bring in as much money as possible, which means hitting up their big donors as often as possible.
Tracy Pierson over at BruinReportOnline has made a number of posts since UCLA was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament imploring his subscribers to donate to UCLA’s collective, the Men of Westwood, and we’ll get to him in a minute, but one thing he mentioned stood out to me in a “well, duh” moment. From what I can gather on Twitter, Pierson intimated that the UCLA administration has acted in a hostile matter toward the Men of Westwood, seeing them as competitors for donor money.
Again, of course they do, and you don’t need to peddle access to various groups to come to that conclusion.
You read everything I wrote in that last section, right? About how the shift towards allowing for NIL represents nothing more than the most recent attempts by a small group of individuals to hold on to as much of the revenue pie that college athletics generates as possible? Of course, the UCLA athletics administration is going to compete against a new NIL collective for every available donor dollar. If you assume that money donated towards any UCLA athletic endeavor is finite in nature, then there will always be competition, and in this specific competition, the athletic department has some huge natural advantages.
For the record: this is also not a UCLA-specific problem. The larger framing of NIL collectives as “not good for college athletics” is done in large part at the behest of the schools because they are afraid that collectives will take away from their slice of the donor pie.
The biggest advantage the athletic department has is the institutional momentum built up over multiple decades of trying to run a “clean” program. You could look back at the situations surrounding Jim Harrick and Bob Toledo and see that UCLA has tried to keep things as above board as possible. This is not to say UCLA never dabbled in any illicit activity regarding recruiting in the last few decades, but compared to some of their peers (especially their crosstown rivals for whom Bruin fans have always held a moral superiority over) UCLA has been fairly clean. That creates a problem for any NIL collective looking to operate on behalf of the school because, right or wrong, collectives are seen by many as cheating. This is a major problem that Men of Westwood has to overcome and to be frank they are failing on this front for reasons both out of their control and of their own making. Again, this collective is having to go up against decades of institutional grooming by the university against the very concept of paying players, which is why they’re trying to get sites like BruinReportOnline to launder their image.
(PS: you only need to look across town to see why the UCLA administration might be leery of any NIL collective. In February, Southern Cal alumni launched the Tommy Group, the school’s third attempt at a collective after Student Body Right and BLVD both failed to gain enough support to maintain viability.).
But that institutional grooming has also left UCLA with a bag man network that lags far behind that of its peers. I will be frank here and not mince words: much of what you are seeing from various NIL collectives around the country is simply the old bagmen networks moving out of the shadows and into the now-legalized sunlight. The schools with the best NIL collectives have tended to be the ones that had a pretty solid underground network making sure the players were already getting some form of benefits. With new NIL laws allowing these groups to pay for players in a legal, tax-deductible manner, those groups have thrown money around like it’s about to lose all value.
These groups have also done some smart things that the Men of Westwood have not done. Just for fun, compare the website put up by the Men of Westwood to that of the Volunteer Club, one of three Tennessee Volunteer NIL collectives listed by the On3 Network. The Volunteer Club is publicly run by Spyre Sports, a Knoxville-based sports agency, and their website features plenty of information on how they use the money that is collected, ways for people to contribute, and legal information in case you are feeling itchy. The Men of Westwood website is incredibly simple, with no actual information on who is running it, what the money is going towards, or any perks that would come with your donation. If anything, the Men of Westwood website looks like a quick scam attempt with all the stock images on display. This is not the work of a serious NIL collective.
Oh, and lest you think I am being mean to the Men of Westwood, maybe take a peak at the website for the Bobcat Collective, a NIL group for FCS Montana State. Probably not a good sign if an FCS team has more information than you.
My main problem with Men of Westwood has been the lack of transparency in general. Proponents of the collective have stressed that the lack of transparency is important because of *wink wink* *nudge nudge* you know, but I am here to tell you that is a load of bullocks. NIL collectives already are running against the stigma of trying to buy players, so almost all of them try to be very transparent about who their main players are and how they use their money. Of all 136 collectives listed by On3, only six of them (including UCLA) are not listed as having a founder; of those six, two are now defunct, two belong to SMU (really staying on-brand, you have to respect it), and the last is The Fund, the secretive Texas A&M collective that is comprised of some of the biggest donors the school has. And while I brought up the differences in websites in part to show how shoddy the UCLA effort has been, there is a lot of truth to the matter that appearances matter, and the Men of Westwood does not give the appearance of a serious NIL collective. You can wave as many press releases as you want around, but if you’re not even going to link them as a way of providing legitimacy, then what are we even doing here?
Let me be fair here before moving on. I have no doubt that Men of Westwood is likely on the up and up. Part of this has to do with that press release because if Martin Jarmond is willing to attach his name to something as being officially tied to the program, he likely has some faith in its legitimacy. And I have heard advertising on the radio feed promoting the Men of Westwood, which at the very least means they have some access to money.
But we are talking about a NIL collective with a shoddy website, no social media presence, no transparency, and no apparent plan to fix any of that. And that Jarmond press release is the only real instance of UCLA directly promoting the Men of Westwood; the university sent out an email promoting new season ticket sales for next year’s basketball team and sold it as a way to support the program, and MoW was not mentioned at all. You can’t really accuse Jarmond of not understanding the modern landscape of college athletics - he helped drive UCLA’s move to the Big Ten, after all - so the fact that his athletic department is only offering tepid support says more than anyone involved in Men of Westwood would care to admit. It’s not a good look, and it should not be a surprise as to why the collective is theoretically struggling.
Let’s talk Bruin Report Online and its role here real quick.
BRO has been one of the early proponents of the Men of Westwood, for admittedly understandable reasons. They are a recruiting website first and foremost that thrives when UCLA is good and has access to good athletes. A thriving NIL collective is the surest path to achieving this goal, so it makes plenty of sense that BRO would be willing to promote it.
But the actions taken over the past week have left a sour taste in my mouth. Promotion of the collective has become THE driving topic for the website, with multiple posts from both site writers and community members promoting the collective and encouraging donations while handwaving away any concerns. The entire scene has vibes straight out of the political emails you get during an election year, telling you that if you personally donate to the campaign it just might be enough to secure a victory.
Again, though, I am not surprised that BRO took this course of action. Their whole business model and livelihoods rest on generating interest in UCLA athletics and maintaining relationships. Access journalism has its perks (sneak peaks into a world you might otherwise never know about) but it comes at the cost of having to use what little reputation you have garnered to continually run cover for whatever the company line is. In this case, BRO is promoting their new bedfellows in the Men of Westwood not just by actively promoting it but also by promoting the company line that the collective is struggling due to difficulties presented by both the university and fanbase. The Men of Westwood cannot fail, it can only be failed.
When writing this, I started thinking back to the controversy surrounding the gymnastics team in early 2022. We wrote about it here. The LA Times wrote about it. BRO? Silent. Covering the brand in a negative light goes against the company line. Crazy how that continually happens.
One of the things I’ve been proud of with both The Mighty Bruin and Bruins Nation before is that we have always had an independent voice. We aren’t beholden to the school for access because, frankly, we’ve never really been given it. We’re allowed to be honest about the direction of various UCLA athletics programs because this isn’t our day job (though again, to the people who see fit to actually pay a subscription, we do thank you and we’ll talk soon). Especially in more recent years since Joe and Greg initially took over and I came aboard, there has been an increased push to allow a much broader range of opinions, so much so that I encourage people to disagree with me even though I am always right and have never been wrong before in my life.
Saying all of that, when it comes to NIL collectives, the Men of Westwood, and everything…I don’t know.
I will be completely honest with you and say that the realist in me is fine with the existence of NIL collectives because I know the actual solutions to this issue (schools pay the players a salary and collective bargaining exists to protect athletes from being taken advantage of) is a non-starter for many of the power brokers in the sport. But that also doesn’t mean I have to like it, or that I can’t find the entire endeavor disgusting. The Jaden Rashada recruitment is the textbook example of the fact that these collectives are not altruistic organizations and will do whatever it takes to acquire the best talent for the schools, even if it means promising large amounts of money that they never intend to follow through on.
I’m not going to judge people who choose to donate to Men of Westwood; it is, after all, your money, and what you do with it is none of my concern. But that doesn’t mean Men of Westwood deserves your unconditional support, and asking valid questions that the vast majority of high-end NIL collectives have answered should not be seen as attacking the program. We’re supposed to be fans of UCLA, the #1 public university in the world, and we should strive to be better than we keep showing ourselves to be here.
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Just a heads up, I'm gonna be in the comments for this one, so if you have questions or things you want me to respond to, let me know. I'll also try to clarify things when necessary.
Wow Dimitri, thank you for tackling this incredibly difficult subject and laying out the facts for everyone to digest. I have always appreciated your honest and thorough articles. Worth every penny of my subscription. While I understand the need for an NIL program, I like your bagman analogy. I just can't help seeing Nick Nolte in Blue Chips and hearing the term "friends of the program". Times are changing in college sports. Buckle up. I think it's going to be a bumpy ride.